According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The New York International Fringe Festival 2007

Sixteen capsule reviews from the tenth annual New York International Fringe Festival, reviewed by Patrick Lee.

photo: Jonathan Slaff

The best play I saw at this year's Fringe Festival was August Schulenburg's supremely intelligent and entertaining Riding The Bull; it's a remarkable play with a distinctive vision of America. When GL, a God-fearing rodeo clown, takes up with Fat Lyza, the surly no-nonsense woman who's vandalized the town's nativity scene, Riding The Bull plays at first like a homespun losers-in-love comic fable. But when it turns out that Lyza, upon climax, can dependably predict tomorrow's winning bull rider (thanks to God's intervention) and that GL's most faith-based use for the resulting gambling profits is to seek out that falsest of American gods (Elvis), the play reveals a thematic richness and a captivating complexity under its deceptively simple folkloric surface. There's a great deal of humor and sadness in this carefully constructed two-hander: the humor never slips into apathetic snickering at faith, and the sadness is the real thing (read: not the easy, sentimental kind). Thanks in part to perfectly modulated performances from Will Ditterline and Liz Dailey, this production (happily, the festival's Audience Award winner and slated for additional performances as part of the Fringe Encores series) brings the play to indelibly memorable life.

photo: John Scott

I can also recommend another two-hander in the Fringe Encores series: an intimate and often crudely funny hour-long slice of dysfunctional life called bombs in your mouth. As half-siblings Danny and Lily reunite after their father's bizarre funeral service. they chug down beers, arm wrestle like growling animals, and lash out at each other's judgments like overgrown children. In short, they pick up right where they left off six years before. The crazy old man's will favors the one who split town rather than the one who stayed behind to take care of him: there's a lot of resentment to work through. In less skilled hands this sort of thing could deteriorate into a shouting match for actors, but the playwright (Rude Mechanicals member Corey Patrick, who also co-stars with Cass Bugge) has a keen ear for dialogue and he knows that there's affection between the lines of the characters' aggressions; he makes us aware of that even before it's baldly expressed. The play has a convincingly messy rythym: it often seems like the actors are making it up on the spot. Don't let them fool you: it takes a lot of skill to pull that off.

It's a pity that Hail Satan isn't among the shows in the Fringe Encores series; it's a hell of a good show. The first act of Mac Rogers' smart, darkly funny play scores largely as a straight-faced satire of the soullessness of corporate culture, as wishy-washy new employee Tom discovers that all of his ambitious co-workers are part of a small prayer circle of Satan-worshipers. They're so reasonable and welcoming when they say so that it's not long before doubting Tom is sharing at their Sunday meetings and getting used to thinking of the devil when they greet each other with "The lord be with you". While carefully laying the solid groundwork for a tidy chiller (at times it seems like a gender-swapped Rosemary's Baby that preys on the fears of career success and fatherhood rather than marriage and motherhood) Rogers plays with our notions of religious tolerance and of our cultural acceptance of selfishness: this is clever, pitchfork-funny stuff. Although the suspenseful second act - more plot-driven, more serious in tone, and focused more on family than on corporate dynamics - includes a plot twist that is thematically justified but not adequately prepared for dramatically, the play is always bold and effective both as swift, engaging entertainment and as needling social comment.

The Commission caught me by surprise: after the first scene I was sure I knew where it was going (political intrigue) and then it went somewhere else (sexual warfare) and then somewhere else again. That's not to say that Stephen Fechter's 95 minute one-act is aimless; to the contrary, it's sharp and lean and purposeful as the scenes play out in reverse chronological order. (That's the most benign thing I can reveal to indicate the drama's rigor and intelligence without spoiling too much.) Set in an unnamed country (Yugoslavia?) during and after a brutal civil war in which many civilian women were raped and murdered, the play begins with what seems like the chance meeting between two women: an American who is entangled extramaritally with a prosecutor of war crimes, and a young student who fears that her fiance, a solider, is dead. The violence that we see on stage is mostly of the interpersonal kind, including an extended mostly nude post-sex scene between the older couple that is harrowing in its frankness, as their seemingly warm intimacy gives way to brutality and humiliation. Although this play is often more engaging intellectually than emotionally, it nonetheless packs a sucker punch that lingers long after it concludes.

Like his taut and sexually explicit Extra Virgin playwright Howard Walters' intense and edgy one-act Chaser has two gay men literally and figuratively going at it. This one is sharper and even more provocative, an engrossing drama in which confident, quick-thinking Val (Wil Petre) has a secret agenda while aggressively putting the moves on gun-shy Dominick (Jake Alexander). It's immediately clear that there's more to the tension in the air than the usual first-date nerves: even when the two are making small talk and inching toward each other on Dominick's futon couch (the only set piece on an otherwise black stage) we're waiting for a shoe to drop. It does when Val's intentions are clear. The rest of the 50-minute play is a sometimes harrowingly frank battle of wills between the two men; apart from a few stray didactic moments, it's dramatic dynamite. Both actors are excellent and well-matched, bringing a palpable sense of emotional and sexual danger to even their most benign interplay. Shaun Peknic's no-nonsense direction ably serves the play's sobering, clear-eyed themes.

photo: Ian Jackson

The best musical I saw at this year's Fringe Festival featured two actors playing white gay rappers who go by the names T-Bag and Feminem. But BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera isn't the parody that its come-on might lead you to expect; it's exciting, trenchant musical theatre and boundlessly invigorating entertainment. Using hip-hop's naked aggression and its uncompromisingly explicit language, the all-rapped show is both a convincing, affecting gay love story and an unapologetic in-your-face rallying call for equal rights. It's also the best case I have ever seen made for the stage-worthiness of this genre of music: the dope beats and rhymes in BASH'd are always in service of storytelling. So what if there are a few gay-coming-of-age cliches and who cares that the message, as befits rap music, is ultimately blunt? That matters not at all, thanks to the freshness and the vitality of the presentation.

Mark Baratelli's Improv Cabaret slapped a huge, silly smile on my face for its forty-five minutes. With no planning and no suggestions from the audience, quick-thinking Baratelli not only makes up the cheesy imitation American-songbook numbers on the spot but also the faux-confessional banter in between: the result is a light, affectionate send-up of the genre's illusion of emotional intimacy between performer and audience. The joke is that the intimacy here is fake but he delivers it with the portent and the heightened emotional pitch of the real thing: at the performance I saw, his increasingly ludicrous story about a childhood spent with corn husks for friends segued into a ridiculous uplifting anthem about finding one's way home to the corn. I like Mark Baratelli's corn.

In Kiss And Make Up, an often zippy but ultimately uneven musical which takes place at a nerve-rattled community theatre, a variety of farcical mishaps force the leading man to also play the leading lady on (of course) opening night, while his co-stars scramble about either to assist or to sabotage him. The show takes too long to get going - the first act is slow setting things up, and too many of the musical numbers throughout bring the action dangerously to a standstill when what's essential for farce is monentum - but once we're in the show-within-the-show (which, shrewdly, is also a farce) the book is often clever and lively. The show's biggest problem, besides that three times as many moments are musicalized than need be, is a persistent one with farce and concerns the specific brand of exaggerated performance style that it asks of an actor. Frankly, you either got it or you ain't. Only half of this ensemble has got it.

In "VH1 Behind The Music" style, Show Choir: The Musical recounts the rise and fall of a fictional superstar show choir (think big smiles, sequined uniforms and the blandest kind of geeky choir pop) who for a time take the international music scene by storm. That's a joke to anyone who has even the slightest awareness of what drives pop music, but this show is a mockumentary only by dint of it being make-believe; it isn't shaped to be spoof, nor satire, nor camp. It's depressingly earnest and unimaginative - we're meant to go along with the conceit, and watch as one band-breaking-up cliche plays out after another: fame goes to the choir director's head and he hogs the spotlight, one choir girl gets drunk and becomes fodder for the gutter press, the songwriter starts moonlighting elsewhere, and so on. There is nothing at stake in this straight-faced fantasy - the documentary format doesn't even invite us to root for the choir to be a success, since that's a given at the start - and the show exists in a vacuum, not the least bit interested in commenting on real-life pop culture at all. It's an excuse for sequins and songs. That said, the sequins are better than the songs.

Bixby Elliot's PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play] needs work; it only occasionally demonstrates how funny and touching it could be after some sleeves are rolled back up. The play has an unusual structure, alternating between the romantic interests of a gay man in 1981 and of a bookish woman in 1951 (the connecting tissue is that each works as the rare-books librarian in the same sub-basement, thirty years apart) but the bifurcation doesn't pay any comic dividends until near the end of the play. (The scene where it does pay, however, hits the jackpot.) More seriously idling the play too long in neutral is yet another set of alternated scenes (monologues, actually) in which Everett Quinton, as a gay activist, holds forth in queer manifesto mode. I see the thematic importance of this, but the monologues don't build from one to another: generally, once you've seen the first one you've seen them all. Additionally, the male librarian's story becomes unclear at the eleventh hour - I thought I understood the specifics of his issues with his boyfriend, and then they went for another round of fighting that made me not like or understand either of them. And yet, with all that said, it is clear that there is a worthwhile, potentially moving play here struggling to make itself known.

For the most (and best) part, Tom Johnson's play Madonna And Child And Other Divas earnestly concerns an evangelical Christian who fights against his homosexual temptations. We see him struggling over the course of his adult life: driven from a Baptist college in the mid-'50s under threat of being exposed as a sodomite, courting and marrying a young woman some years later who believes it is her mission from God to save him from his sinful desires, and most incredibly (because this is based on a true story) undergoing an exorcism to rid him of the "homosexual demon" after a gay affair is uncovered. Johnson mostly steers clear of satirizing these characters - much of the play paints a serious and realistic picture of a gay man facing prejudice and intolerance from well-meaning "love the sinner but hate the sin" people. Apart from the curious touch of having stacks of Bibles substitute for meals or telephones (we hardly need *that* to get the omnipresence of Scripture in this world) this much of the play is effective and memorable. What doesn't work so well is the framing device which runs through the play: one of its aims is to provide analogous, self-loathing action in current times, but it's too underdeveloped to make that point. It becomes a distraction from an otherwise straightforward play.

With more ambition than skill, a good deal of A Mikvah attempts a non-linear collage that illustrates its main character's mental and emotional distress on the occasion of a major life crisis. Characters from past and present simultaneously speak (too often in generalities and platitudes) to him and to each other as if in a fragmented dream: dialogue is repeated elliptically, or said in unison, or reduced to phrases that overlap one another. The text is problematic - this heavy-handed mood-making persists long after we're ready for specificity and clarity, and then there's an out-of-nowhere non-fictional supporting character (grown-up JTT, the former child star of Home Improvement) whose sassy brand of world-weary seems to be from a totally different play. Besides some less-than-credible acting from the ensemble (Max Jenkins, as JTT, is an exception) the production suffers from a lack of attention to detail. The highly theatrical style that is attempted here depends very much on the strength of its imagery, and it's sloppy to assign a profound spiritual meaning to water, for example, and then have it carried out on stage in what looks like a plastic storage bin from The Container Store.

photo: Jim Baldassare

An uneasy mix of farcical comedy and cynical relationship drama, ...Double Vision works best when its characters are in full-on comic neurotic mode; it falters when it tries to go deeper than a sitcom. The story involves a half dozen single New Yorkers (three men who share an apartment, and three women who are involved with them in one way or another) but it noticeably lacks big city flavor - it's no more urban than an episode of Friends. One guy can't muster up the courage to tell his girlfriend to stay with him rather than take that new job out in California, another only hooks up with married women, another breaks away from the throes of a passion with a French girl half his age to get a taste of someone else. The theme of men resisting commitment is in here somewhere, but the play's individual moments stay isolated and don't accumulate emotionally or thematically; by the end, when one of the guys wanders around the stage naked, there's every indication that we're meant to find his actions sobering and serious, but the jokey, snickering play hasn't earned that.

photo: George Rand

Written (by Adam Szymkowicz) to show its star Susan Louise O'Connor to neurotic-adorable advantage (on that score, it mostly succeeds) the hour-long Susan Gets Some Play is set in motion when one of Susan's friends gets the idea to pretend to produce a play in order to hold bogus auditions: how else will dating-discouraged Susan meet guys? The slight, brief comedy seems intended as a silly, goofy lark, but even a lark has to have rules and this one, by design, keeps changing them up. Guys seated in the audience take the stage to audition following one that entered from the wings: the playfulness here has more to do with mild goofing on theatrical rules than on Susan's love problems. Although thick with theatre in-jokes and aggressive fourth-wall breakage, the play's mild flavor of zany makes it feel more like a television sitcom than anything else. Susan, previously and self-effacingly oblivious to interest from guys right under her nose, wanders into the audience at the play's climax to deliver an earnest monologue promising to change her ways and her attitude. This personal growth moment is unearned and out of nowhere: we didn't see Susan do any work.

The cute, exactly-campy-enough Scout's Honor, comprised of a sketch about the Boy Scouts (Snipe Hunt) and a longer and even funnier one about the Girls Scouts (Becky's Beaver), should get a special merit badge for its warmth: it aims to tickle with a light hand and it succeeds. The talented adult cast plays, with just an exception or two, kids of scouting age - the same actors are in both stories with changed-up genders when needed - and happily everyone has been led down the same trail where no one goes too far with the kid-traits. Each story centers comically on a Scout who can't fit in: in the first, it's a wussy gayboy who asks at campfire sing-a-long if anyone knows anything from Pippin, and in the second, it's a nerdgirl who can't get with the big beaver-hunting program. It's all good, not-exactly-clean fun, in which each of the able and amiable actors gets to strut his or her funny stuff front and center in at least one role.

Sketch comedy shows are almost always hit and miss. Animals has two uneven but perfectly amiable skits at the top of the first act, and after that it's one winner after another, as three talented and very likeable performers (Erin Mortensen, Michael Hirstreet, and Ryan O'Nan, also the playwright) act out scenes that touch on the overarching idea of humans vs. animals. It has the feeling of a themed episode of Saturday Night Live, except it's often brainier than that show's been in a while and the skits don't peter out in exhaustion - they build and pay off. The scenes in the first act are organized around the action in a pig-themed diner in New Jersey and follow a nifty comic arc: we're first with the pig-costumed wait staff who feel oppressed by the customers, then with the customers who are attacked by birds, then with the row of birds above the customers, and so on. The longer, more developed skits in the second act all touch on animal mythology. Even if they were not all terrific and terrificly clever (they are) the scenes of two gay unicorns, driven to desperate action when banned from Noah's Ark because they can't sexually reproduce, would alone make the show worth catching. And that's besides the welcome speech that Noah's wife gives to all the assembled animals, where she philosophizes that any animal she was able to capture is surely not the brightest example of the species. Animals is a hoot.

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